Andrew Arthur: I had a nervous breakdown at my deaf boarding school. Now it’s time to tell my story

Posted on October 22, 2013



For years I have pondered whether to tell my story. For sure, it’s an unusual one.

After an unsuccessful start at a private school, I rebelled (because I was being bullied) and got myself chucked out. Unfortunately for the bullies I tend to fight back, getting myself into hot water in the process. This was to become a somewhat recurring theme, I’m afraid.

My hearing loss was gradual at around this time and I think what was happening was that I was mis-hearing things, doing the opposite of what I was told because I had not heard properly. Things of that kind get you into trouble at school. Nowadays, we’d call it discrimination.

I ended up in a PDU in a large council run primary school in Tottenham.

Lessons at school were conducted according to the content of the class. We had a number of people from signing families, so their lessons were mostly in sign but they had a lot of extra English lessons. They could all speak and sign.

My class were mostly oral deaf people, we had a couple of signers with good English. When the two classes got together everything was done in a mixture of sign and English and I still think this is a good way to teach deaf kids.

Six of us took the exam for a deaf boarding school. Five passed. The other didn’t actually fail as such. He was judged to be able to cope in the hearing world and so not accepted on the grounds that other people had a greater need of a deaf education.

But the school proved to be a huge let-down for me. It was both a surprise and a disappointment that it was not at all like the school I had just left. I had read ‘Jennings Goes To School’ and although I realised it was fiction, I expected there to be some resemblance. Not a bit.

At that time, the school was run by a former soldier who had a bit of a fixation with military ways. In my opinion, we were treated more like army cadets than students. It was a shock. I had thought it was going to be fun, but it was highly regulated and removed almost all responsibility from us. We had to have special permission and a good reason to own a box of matches!

The biggest shock of all was that I was separated from my companions. Having been to the same primary school we had formed a little group and were looking forward to going through the boarding school together. Suddenly, I discovered that I was to be separated from the others and instead would go straight into the second year.

I was absolutely horrified. I was only 11 and had counted on being part of a group of friends. I was taken away from that, plonked in with the mostly 13-14 year olds in the second year and pretty much told to get on with it. I think this is the worst thing that ever happened to me during my education.

And so it was that I became a rebel. I was a little bugger. I was always pranking people, messing about in lessons, distracting people and generally being a pain in the arse. Something for which I sincerely apologise to those affected. The fact is that things had not worked out at all how I expected. Instead of being in a cosy group of friends I was suddenly a stranger, an outcast.

It did attract a certain amount of resentment. The others felt that I had somehow put on over them; there was a lot of jealousy. For my own part I had no idea why all this was happening. My questions to the teachers were met with unhelpful answers. Nothing was ever explained.

A arthur  drums

On the drums (a few years after I left school)

That’s how I went through school. I think my education never really recovered from that setback. If they had just left me alone I would have felt secure and able to perform well, as I had in the past. But this single action destroyed my confidence in them and they became “the enemy”.

Of course at the time, I was just a kid. As I progressed through the school I learned in my own way.

It turns out that I have an eidetic memory. I tend to read and memorise things which can later be recalled. It’s a neat trick but I can only really do it if I am in a happy and relaxed frame of mind. So my progress was erratic. But basically they just didn’t understand me and I could not change to please them.

That’s why, when I was 15, I had a minor nervous breakdown. It was right at the end of the summer term and we had all been working hard. But then it all got too much and I felt terribly depressed. I knew I wasn’t working well, my exams had not gone well because under stress my dyslexia gets worse. I find it hard to write and I have to count on my fingers.

So I had a tough time and in the end I had passed 5 and failed 4 ‘O’ levels. The ones I failed were all the ones with a numerical content (plus French where I suffered a total memory failure on the day).

I was treated at home by the family doctor for the effects of mild depression. I had to have permission from the Principal to bring my medication to school and after a certain amount of negotiation this was done. However the following conversation is burned into my mind.

I was walking in the school grounds one evening, near the rose garden when the Principal came over to me. He said “What is this I hear about you having depression then?”

I said: “That’s what the doctor told me it was”.

He said: “There’s nothing wrong with you! You make me sick!”

I was aghast. How dare he say that! So I said:

“Maybe it’s you who made me sick, Sir?”

He didn’t reply. He just walked away.

I went home for the summer holidays and relaxed. My parents were as usual busy running the grocery business which by then had grown to several shops and a warehouse. Fact is I hardly saw my parents and so I pondered my future undisturbed. I continued to be a bookworm, and regularly ransacked the library at home.

The autumn term began at school, I was scheduled to retake my failed O levels (much to my annoyance) and also begin studying English and Geography at A level. But again I found myself being discriminated against. I’d had enough.

What happened was that although we all went up to the 6th form as a group, all of the others were made prefects except me. This meant that they had the use of the prefects room and other things which I was not permitted to do. Increasingly I found myself alone in a classroom.

There was no alternative but to tough it out and I went home for the Christmas holidays, still deeply concerned about my future. I really wanted to be a scientist but my lack of maths made it difficult. The school would not help me, they simply insisted that I work harder. I was going nowhere.

During the school holidays I had a long conversation with my father at the end of which he telephoned the school and told them that I would not be returning after Christmas. As a matter of fact there were big sighs of relief at both ends of the phone. It had been clear to me for years that the school didn’t understand me and my particular problems. They were unable to adapt to the fact that I don’t respond to pressure.

Due to the fact that I had been constantly in conflict with the school I had a pretty bad reputation at the school. I just found it such an unreal world and full of unwelcome pressures that I could never really settle there. They had one hell of an attitude problem, in my view, and I could not adapt. That said, outside of the classroom I had a lot of fun.

But for me nothing could make up for the fact that my education was a difficult and depressing experience. They didn’t understand me at all. I wasn’t told what was being done “for my own good” and to this day I am not sure what the object was.

Did they want me to be one of these kids who does a degree at 16? Why did they keep pushing me when it was clear that I was unhappy with being pushed?

I jokingly refer to my time there as a “5 year stretch” at boarding school. But really,  it’s not that much of a joke.

By Andrew Arthur

Andrew is a hard-working campaigner and volunteer. He can be found regularly offering advice and opinion on the Action on Hearing Loss forums and helps to run Hear We Go Cornwall

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